WASHINGTON, Jan. 11, 2017 - Heavy rains and snowfall in the West hold out the prospect for a bountiful 2017 for California agriculture, but farm groups and meteorologists are still hesitant to declare victory over the drought that has gripped the state for five years.
Storms dropped massive amounts of precipitation over northern California this past weekend, flooding rivers and increasing the already substantial snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Still, even more is needed to bring normalcy back to the Golden State’s farming sector, said Daniel Sumner, a professor at the University of California.
“Rain this time of year falling on the fields has some relevance, but the most important thing is the snowpack,” Sumner told Agri-Pulse. “There’s lots of moisture coming over the next week or so, and we may be getting to normal, but we’re certainly not there yet. Things could be relatively normal now and still we could have a disastrous year … if more rain and snow doesn’t come through January and February.”
California farmers generally don’t depend on steady rain to sustain their fields and orchards, but instead rely heavily on the snowpack that builds up in the Sierra Nevada in December, January and February and then melts into the rivers and reservoirs through the spring and summer.
Currently, the snowpack is above average, according to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). Data show that current snow levels are 171 percent of normal in the Southern Sierra region, 130 percent in the Central Sierras and 111 percent in the Northern Sierras.
Massive amounts of snow were dumped on the mountains this past weekend, but it was a storm on Jan. 4 and 5 that first pushed the snowpack up to historical averages, said Brad Rippey, a USDA meteorologist.
Up until then, Rippey said, California had been getting more than its normal share of rain – from 30 percent to 70 percent above average, depending on location – but the snowpack was only about 70 percent of what it should have been for the first three months of the state’s water year, which begins Oct. 1.
There is still no guarantee that California will finish the water year above average, Sumner said.
Even after the recent storms, the snowpack is only averaging about 58 percent of the total needed through the end of March to ensure there will enough water for the rest of the year, according to an analysis of government data.
“I certainly think it’s premature to say the drought is over,” said Alyssa Houtby, public affairs director for California Citrus Mutual. “Of course, we’re welcoming the rain … but certainly California isn’t out of the woods yet in terms of the drought.”
Maps from the National Drought Mitigation Center show improving conditions in the state, which is the nation’s biggest agricultural producer. However, they still show large swaths of parched land in regions where most of the country’s vegetables, fruit and tree nuts come from.
As of last week, 18 percent of the state was still experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions, according to the Drought Center’s latest report. That compares to 45 percent at the same time a year ago, but it’s still troubling to the state’s farmers.
On the bright side, though, most of California’s reservoirs that farmers depend on for irrigated crops are now near or above average levels, according to DWR dataFor example, the San Luis reservoir, located in the western San Joaquin Valley where farmers produce hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of almonds, grapes, cherries, tomatoes, hay, milk and livestock, is 66 percent full and at 93 percent of its historical average.
“There are a few reservoirs in the southern area that are low,” Rippey said, “but for the most part, the reservoirs that are filled by the Sierras are vastly improved.”
But just because the reservoirs have plenty of water now and there’s a healthy snowpack, that doesn’t guarantee supplies over the summer, said DWR’s David Parker. “The optimal situation is to have the snow levels peak at the beginning of April,” he said. “Then it can melt gradually during the summer.”
And for California to truly recover from the past five years of drought and be prepared for future dry weather, the state needs to recharge its massive groundwater reserves that farmers tap into with expensive wells in times of dryness, said Sumner.
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